Changing strategies

Print edition : August 28, 1999

A bid by the Army to redefine the structure of counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir sparks disputes within the security establishment.

THE end of the war on the Kargil heights has marked the beginning of a new phase in the larger war in Jammu and Kashmir. The week before this Independence Day saw a series of dramatic attacks on Indian forces through the State, the largest and most susta ined offensive by terrorist groups in several years. The new offensive is certain to test the forces, thinned by the withdrawal of troops to secure the borders. When the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government assumed power in New Delhi last year , Indian troops and police and paramilitary personnel in the State were taking the lives of six terrorists for each fatality they suffered. Last year that figure fell below five, and it has dropped to two this summer.

Now the Army, with the evident support of the Union government, is advocating new solutions to reorder the structure of anti-terrorist operations in the State. Rashtriya Rifles Director-General Avtar Gill, who took charge of the Army's counter-terrorist operations after 15 Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Krishan Pal asked to be relieved of this charge, has demanded at meetings of the Unified Headquarters (UHQ) in Srinagar that paramilitary organisations such as the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) be placed under his operational command. But the move has sparked disputes within the security establishment, and could open the way for a disturbing transfiguration of the Army's relationship with civilian government .

The backdrop to Gill's demands is only too evident. The week preceeding August 15 was among the most bloody weeks in years. On June 6, terrorists occupied the village of Chak Nathusa in Kupwara and launched a massive assault on the nearby camp of 4 Rasht riya Rifles. Six terrorists and five soldiers were killed. A day later, 4 Rashtriya Rifles lost its commanding officer, Colonel Balbir Singh, in an ambush. Rockets fired on the Rashtriya Rifles encampment on June 7 claimed another life. Three Navy comman dos were killed in an ambush near Bandipore on June 12, while a bomb went off at a BSF encampment in Tral killing one trooper. Yet another Rashtriya Rifles camp at Beerwah was attacked the next day and three soldiers were killed. Finally, on August 14, R ashtriya Rifles lost five personnel in attacks at Deewar-Lolab and Manasbal.

Neither the BSF nor the CRPF appear delighted with Gill's proposals. Highly placed sources told Frontline that BSF Director-General E.N. Ram Mohan had written to Union Home Secretary Kamal Pandey opposing the Army's proposals. Ram Mohan was stated to have argued that the move would disrupt the functional relationships among the security forces in the State, leading to an escalation of internecine feuds and rivalries. The Director-General said that Rashtriya Rifles, which is strictly not part of t he Army, was in effect a central police organisation (CPO), just like the BSF and the CRPF. While BSF units deployed on the border are under the operational command of the Army, the organisation believes that the application of the same structure in the matter internal security duties would be inappropriate.

Gill's proposals have their origin in a Concept Paper on administration in terrorist-affected States, including Jammu and Kashmir. (In a letter to Frontline, published in the issue of July 16, the Army denied the existence of the paper.)

"Management of Internal Conflict" is a 37-page document, illustrated with slides prepared by the Army Training Command in Shimla. It outlines proposals for drastic changes in the way Army deployments in terrorism-affected areas are carried out. Although the authors are not named in the document, it is learnt that the Concept Paper was prepared for presentation by Lieutenant-General Vijay Uberoi to Union Defence Minister George Fernandes on November 24, 1998.

Lt.-Gen. Avtar Singh Gill, Director-General of Rashtriya Rifles.-NISSAR AHMED

The Concept Paper has five sections. It outlines perspectives on internal security, discusses the role of the Army in its maintenance, presents proposals for united action by security organisations and a recommended structure for managing internal securi ty operations and finally gives a summary of the recommendations. The Concept Paper begins by fleshing out the thesis that insurgencies are the outcome of failures of governments, particularly State governments. It outlines existing and emerging threats in Jammu and Kashmir and the northeastern India as examples of these failures. The Army, the Concept Paper says on its very first page, has had to plough a "lone furrow" in ensuring peace where the State apparatus has failed.

There are more than a few curious conceptual elements in these assertions. For one, the authors of the Concept Paper do not see the Army as an instrument of government. Then the document fails to comprehend that terrorism is not the sole problem the Indi an state has had to engage with, and that governments have without Army support dealt with class warfare, economic conflict and caste violence. As important, the Army's successes and failures in those areas where it has played a key role have been no mor e or no less marked than those of other institutions in the State. For example, the Army's successes in ending terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and in northeastern India have not been recognisably greater than those of successive Central and State governme nts.

One key component of the paper is the demand for special legal protection for the Army in all counter-insurgency operations where it is deployed. Currently such protection is available only in some areas, and a welter of considerations come into play bef ore the imposition of these special laws. The Concept Paper argues on page 4 that it is imperative "from the point of view of morale as well as operational efficiency to protect the rights of soldiers". The sole means its authors can apparently envisage to do so is the promulgation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act under the Disturbed Areas Act. The imposition of these Acts where the Army is deployed in internal security operations, the paper claims, "becomes axiomatic".

The use of the term "axiomatic" is of some significance, suggesting as it does that an engagement with terrorism cannot be attempted without a generalised abrogation of democratic rights. While it is possible to argue coherently that such extraordinary l aws are needed in some situations, the demand for blanket impositions reflects a lack of sensitivity to the political, cultural and even diplomatic considerations at play in counter-terrorist operations. Nor is it clear that the Act protects soldiers fro m human rights prosecutions. The example of the Kashmir Valley, where the Act has long been in place, makes clear it has neither ensured unqualified operational efficiency nor protected soldiers from prosecution. Interestingly, at BJP mobilisations in ar eas like Doda, before the party took power in Delhi, the main demand was the imposition of the Special Powers Act.

The paper points to the contrasting situations in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir and makes a larger distinction between insurgencies where the Army acquired a primary role and those where other organisations predominate. The paper argues that where the sec urity environment can be contained by the police and the paramilitaries, the Army's role should only be "highly selective". Under whose command units would be placed in these circumstances, it does not mention. But where the Army has what the Concept Pap er describes as a "lead role", a situation which would come about in the case of full-blown insurgencies or externally aided wars, the paper suggests that all other security organisations be placed under its operational command.

Army personnel with the bodies of seven militants killed in the first week of August in an encounter in Kupwara district.-NISSAR AHMED

What this would mean in practice is evident. Paramilitary forces are currently attached to local police units, a system that is meant to upgrade their operational abilities. The paper is bitterly critical of this system, arguing that these district level attachments mean senior CPO officials have no real responsibilities. How simply transferring these attachments to the Army will solve this perceived problem is not clear, but what such a proposal would ensure is that local police involvement in counter- terrorist work would be subverted. Given the repeated assertion in the "Management of Internal Conflict" that the Army wishes to minimise its involvement in counter-terrorist work, the Army's determination to take exclusive command of such operations at the same time is more than mystifying.

The most dangerous of all are the Concept Paper's expansionist claims on the civilian administration. It ends with a demand for Army representation in new coordinating mechanisms to be set up at all levels of the administration, mechanisms that would cre ate an interface between civilian officials, the police and the military. "A coordination apparatus must exist in States down to district and even tehsil levels," the Concept Paper asserts in its eighth recommendation on pages 36-37. "The structure shoul d provide for joint planning, decision making, directions, coordination and control. For the committee to function effectively, there is a need for co-location of headquarters, the establishment of joint control rooms, direct communication and liaison, a nd ensuring that the administrative boundaries of the civil administration, the police and the military merge as a last resort."

The implications of these proposals, which in effect advocate the imposition of near-martial law in terrorism-affected States, are enormous. For one, the language of the proposal, in particular the use of the plural form of "States", leaves it open to in terpretation whether this system would operate only in areas where the Army has a "lead role", or in other areas where emerging threats are apparent as well. The proposal will also subvert the principle of military non-involvement in civilian administrat ion as well as legal requirements mandating police and administrative autonomy. Nowhere does the Concept Paper spell out how the Army's involvement in civilian management would improve administrative functioning; even less does it engage with the extreme ly serious issues that would emerge from such an interface.

IN some important senses, all that the paper serves to illustrate is the profound poverty of doctrinal thought in India's internal security establishment. Demands for new powers and authoritarian systems of command substitute for serious debate on how th e Army and other security organisations including the police and the paramilitary forces must evolve and transform themselves to engage with a rapidly transforming security landscape. Before Pokhran-II, much of the Indian Army doctrine was premised on i ts conventional superiority, an advantage that now has little meaning since massed tanks are unlikely to sweep across Sindh without inviting nuclear retaliation. There has clearly been little reflection on how the Army must reshape its doctrine in order to engage effectively with low-intensity, localised conflicts.

Since Union Home Minister L.K. Advani announced a "pro-active" paradigm for Jammu and Kashmir, there have been few tangible gains in the fight against terrorism. Casualities among neither the security forces nor civilians have shown any significant decli ne; indeed, there is more than a little evidence that with increasing numbers of heavy weapons being brought in and trained insurgents entering Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian forces are being pushed into a defensive mode for the first time since 1996. Fac ed with these stark facts, authoritarian doctrine is proliferating. These modes of thought are mirrored by the flirtation of a section of the Army leadership with the Hindu Right. Witness the decision of Director-General of Military Intelligence N.C. Vij and Air Vice-Marshal S.K. Malik to brief the BJP National Executive on the Kargil events on May 6, or 3 Infantry Division commander Lieutenant-General V.N. Budhwar's endorsement of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's Sindhu Darshan festival in Leh last mo nth.

Personnel of the Special Operations Group of the Jammu and Kashmir Police display arms and ammunition seized from a Pakistani militant in Srinagar in May.-NISSAR AHMED

No one is certain where Avatar Gill's demands for new powers will head. For the moment, the State Government appears to have fought off the Army's efforts to place itself at the apex of the security establishment. Gill has replaced 15 Corps Commander Kri shan Pal as Security Adviser to the HQ chairperson, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. But, unlike Pal, he does not hold the right to chair over its meetings in Abdullah's absence. That prerogative has been made over to Chief Secretary Ashok Jaitle y. For the moment, civilian authority remains firmly in place. That in itself is not an adequate response to the larger challenges of discovering new means of engaging with terrorism, and ensuring peace. Sadly, no one in power seems interested in this la rger issue.

The State Government celebrated Independence Day with a bright, film-star studded show on the banks of the Dal lake in Srinagar. Ironically closed to the public, the celebration was organised by Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Pramod Mahajan' s son, Rahul Mahajan. Like the two chess-players who are the central characters in Satyajit Ray's masterpiece, Shatranj ke Khiladi, the Union and State governments seem supremely unconcerned about the violent events that surround them.

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